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Feature: Notes from a Small-Town Bookshop

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Serenaded by Nina Simone and an artist’s journey through the mind’s wild frontier

By Aaron Hicklin

Among the pleasures of running a small town bookstore is not just the stories surrounding you but the stories that walk through the door. It’s a cliche to say that everyone has a book inside them, and in less charitable moments I think of Christopher Hitchens who added a caveat: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” But I trained as a reporter, and I interview people for a living, and despite my restless, impatient nature I have (mostly) learned to listen for stories when the opportunity presents itself. Often it’s when I least expect it, or feel most tired or irritable, that a routine pleasantry turns into the kernel for a story or recollection that scrambles my preconceptions.

Take Ellen Bay, a customer in her late 70s who came in one recent weekend to order a book on the famous street photographer Bill Cunningham. After a few observations on our narcissist-in-chief, we landed on the current plight of New York City’s hospitals. I happened to mention St. Vincent’s hospital in Chelsea (now a luxury condo, natch) and the frontline role it played during the AIDS crisis, only to realize that Ellen didn’t need history lessons from me. She’d been an active member of the AIDS coalition, ACT UP, in the 80s and 90s, including protests inside St. Vincent’s. She knew Larry Kramer, and had opinions. It’s commonplace to see casual insults directed at Boomers on social media, and Ellen reminds me why I find them so aggravating. They serve to erase stories like hers, boxing an entire generation into a set of lazy assumptions and reductions. Stories are how we bridge the divide, but first we need to listen to them.

When Ellen returned for her book a week later, she conjured an image of her 20-year old self, answering phones at The New Yorker, and quietly working on a submission that Brendan Gill helped steer to publication in 1963 (you can find it here between ads for vacations in Jamaica and fresh Maine lobster). Ellen had other stories, too, including a thankless escapade around New York hunting white nail varnish for Nina Simone (she was producing her show at Newark’s Symphony Hall). Ms. Simone had a reputation for being testy, and Ellen did not contradict it, but then came a tale of utter grace. In the car Ms. Simone asked Ellen’s colleague (and future husband) to name a favorite song. He chose a track by Leonard Cohen. Unbidden, Simone began to sing it. Imagine it! Undone by that powerful voice, he stopped the car and wept. Although it’s easy to become jaded by humanity’s infinite capacity for stupidity and greed, small daily interactions like these constantly remind me that everyone’s life is a narrative filled with triumph and tribulation, comic interludes, griefs small and large, and moments of reprieve.

The cover of The New Yorker, June 22, 1963; an Act Up protest; Nina Simone

Something else you discover when you run a small bookstore like mine: almost everyone has a talent that illuminates who they are. A young boy, Arthur, who comes in annually to spend his birthday money on books, turns out to be the most incredible graphic artist with a wild and loose imagination; an opera singer, with a passion for preserving the legacy of composers murdered in Theresienstadt, once demonstrated her pipes by singing an aria in the store; a former schoolteacher is also an expert ice cream maker. When I first conceived a literary festival for Narrowsburg, most of those who ended up participating were initially customers who walked through my door (ice cream maker and opera singer included). I kept telling people that some divine synergy was at work, but of course synergy was just another word for community. We are all part of a community, but from the intimacy of a bookstore the sheer richness and vitality of a place, even a tiny one like this, achieves a beautiful clarity.

I don’t recall when Dasha Ziborova first visited the store, or what she brought, and neither does she (although she thinks she probably picked up Marlon James’s Book of Night Women or Stupid Model by local author Barbara de Vries), but what I do remember is her bright and generous energy. When such a person enters a bookstore, it can feel like a hit of dopamine. It was a good deal later that I discovered she was an artist and comic book creator, one with a dream-like eye for oddity. One of her comics is titled Sex Life of Sheep, based on a visit she made to the Scottish Highlands; another, Lesson 21, focuses on her experience of school in the Soviet Union; she graduated high school just as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. “You wouldn’t believe how, in two or three years, everything changed,” she recalled during a recent conversation. “It was so rapid, but when I was growing up communism seemed like it was forever.”

Nightclubber

Dasha frequently uses a Risograph to create her art, and if you don’t know what a Risograph is you’re probably in good company. You can find more on that here. When, in 2018, I put together the inaugural Deep Water Literary Fest, Dasha came to multiple events and created a series of images from the performances and readings she attended. The following year she created a multiple-page memento of the festival complete with fold-outs that captured specific moments, like the musician David Driver performing a cover of “What the World Needs Now” during the opening night dinner. Last week, her festival book was chosen to be included in American Illustration 39, an annual compendium of the best artists in the field. 

How do people end up where they do? When people ask how I ended up opening a bookstore in this town of 431 (the 2020 census may change that), I respond flippantly that I threw my hat in the air to see where it landed, but even as a metaphor it’s not quite true. My in-laws live 40 minutes away, and I had a passing familiarity with the area (if not the town), but I was sold on my first visit, largely on the charm of the Delaware River, around which the town snakes. We have rivers in Britain that would never make the grade in the U.S., where the rivers are wide and majestic. From the shop window I will occasionally spot a bald eagle as it swoops down to the water and back up, carried on the eddies of air. And where else can you stop for a dip in the river before opening up a bookstore?

Although Narrowsburg is tiny, truly a one stoplight town, it seems to have a magnetic pull that brings in the most interesting people. Dasha (who lives in nearby Hurleyville) is among them. She moved up here shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Married, with a newborn, it made sense to be well away from the acrid smoke and fear of New York. But her actual story starts in Saint Petersburg, where she was born in the same apartment that her grandmother survived the Siege of Leningrad, the subject of a graphic novel that Dasha has written and will one day publish. Like so many people she owes her calling to an observant teacher who, spotting her talent, called her mother to the school and strongly suggested that Dasha be sent to a special art school. Her mother took the advice. “That girl disappeared, but she was like a guardian angel in the form of a teacher,” Dasha recalled. Four years later she moved on to what she called an “art high school,” one so old and prestigious that it was founded by Catherine the Great. She hated it. “It was so rich in history that there was no room for new ideas,” said Dasha. “They trained us like shoemakers – everything was about the craft, nothing about thinking. I didn’t know anything else, since I wasn’t from an artistic background, and knew no underground artists. They absolutely killed any creativity in me.”

What reignited her creativity was moving to New York, hot on the heels of the 1991 putsch when Boris Yeltsin memorably stood on a tank defying an attempted coup, while Gorbachev was being detained during a trip to the Crimea. Dasha was in St. Petersburg, and joined the pro-democracy protests, but left shortly after to visit an old friend from art school who had moved to New York. She recalls knowing she found home even as the airplane circled above the city.

In New York Dasha hopped from gig to gig–computer animation, graphic design, textiles–until one afternoon in Barnes & Noble she had an epiphany. “Suddenly I saw a Maira Kalman book, Max the Dog, and it blew my mind,” she said. “It was the first time I realized what a children’s book could be, so I created my first children’s book, Crispin the Terrible.” The book, about a snotty cat with text by Bob Morris, was published, and several more after it. She had a baby, and her art changed. “I started to create very strange drawings of people shedding blood, eviscerations, really disturbed pictures,” she recalls. She submitted her work to a gallery in Chelsea, New York, that immediately offered to represent her.  “I think I had a lot of beginner’s luck,” said Dasha. “I thought everything was easy: you write a book, you get a publisher, you submit something to a gallery, it agrees to represent you.”

Deep Water Literary Fest 2019 souvenir

Nothing, of course, is easy. Or not for long. When Dasha began homeschooling her son, her art work took a hiatus. And despite her love of New York, she never lost the sense of being an outsider. “I had a lot of luck at the beginning but this luck did not translate into a career,” she said, not with self-pity, but as a simple fact. “I didn’t understand what to do with this luck.” But she has finished homeschooling her son, and all that energy is now being channeled into her art again. In 2016, and again in 2019, she was accepted for a retreat at The Cabins, in Norfolk, Connecticut, set up by the writer Courtney Maum. She launched Real Time in Ink, which she describes as “an ongoing sketching project that focuses on travel, events, and cultural and political gatherings.” Her sketches, often on recycled paper or old books, have a wonderfully loose and fluid style, as if she is letting the pen lead her rather than the other way around. “I am a daydreamer,” she said. “A lot of my stories come while I take a hike or a walk. It’s like a movie in my head; it unrolls into an absolutely crazy story. And I get emotional, I can cry over it.”

Detail from The Sex Life of Sheep

As a young woman, studying chemical engineering in Leningrad, Dasha’s mother succumbed to similar flights of imagination. Far from home, where her younger brother lived with their mother, a geologist, in the vast wilderness of the North Pole – in Chukotka to be precise – Dasha’s mother succumbed to fearful visions. “There was a little aerodrome nearby and for some reason my mother started imagining that a small plane would fly over the yard, and crash on top of her little brother,” recalled Dasha. “She started crying uncontrollably. People started asking what had happened, but she was too embarrassed to tell them.”

It is, of course, a story about the power of imagination, and what we can achieve when we harness it for art. When we began chatting I asked Dasha if she considered herself an artist or a comic book creator. She gave the question some thought, and then answered: neither. “Actually, what I think I am is a storyteller,” she said. “I just use a different media to tell my stories.”

You can read more on Dasha Ziborova here.

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Book Club: Things we learned from Milan Kundera’s 1984 Paris Review Interview

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(We do the work so you don’t have to).

Milan Kundera, 1980. Photo by Elisa Cabot

The 1970 Book Club meets via Zoom on Sunday May 17 at 4.30pm to discuss Milan Kundera’s short story collection, Laughable Loves (you can purchase it here). We read his 1984 conversation with Christian Salmon for The Paris Review, and identified our five quotes that offer context to his work.

On overlong books: “When you have finished reading, you should still be able to remember the beginning.”

On Kafka: “Do you realize that people don’t know how to read Kafka simply because they want to decipher him? Instead of letting themselves be carried away by his unequaled imagination, they look for allegories and come up with nothing but clichés: life is absurd (or it is not absurd), God is beyond reach (or within reach), et cetera.”

On the number seven: “All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven. I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape.”

On the challenges of plot: “Nothing has become as suspect, ridiculous, old-fashioned, trite, and tasteless in a novel as plot and its farcical exaggerations. From Flaubert on, novelists have tried to do away with the artifices of plot. And so the novel has become duller than the dullest of lives. Yet there is another way to get around the suspect and worn-out aspect of the plot, and that is to free it from the requirement of likelihood. You tell an unlikely story that chooses to be unlikely! That’s exactly how Kafka conceived Amerika.”

On the necessity of ambiguity: “Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses.”

Buy Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves

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Feature: What We Love Right Now

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Lord Edgware Dies conjures a London steeped in intrigue


In which we share our current obsessions

1. Lord Edgware Dies, BBC Radio 4

There is no shortage of Agatha Christie adaptations, for screen or for radio. But this, originally recorded by the BBC in 1992, feels like the warm familial hug we need on a blustery spring day. It stars the wonderful and under-appreciated John Moffatt, a British stage actor with pitch-perfect timing. Moffatt, who died in 2012 just shy of his 90th birthday, established his career in the era of Noël Coward and John Gielgud, as well as a whole posse of British dames, including Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith (with whom he starred on the stage in a 1970 production of Hedda Gabler directed by Ingmar Bergman). A master of comic timing, he make a wonderful Poirot, just the right balance of conceit and scorn. The adaptation is in five half-hour episodes, a perfect length to listen to while you’re making dinner.

Listen Here.

2. The Case of Agatha Christie, London Review of Books

As a companion piece to Lord Edgware Dies, take time out to read this wonderful essay by the writer John Lanchester. It’s been 100 years since Agatha Christie published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was also the first outing of Inspector Hercule Poirot, surely the best loved fictional detective in the world (though not perhaps the best known; that may be Sherlock Holmes). In this engaging journey through the Christie canon, published in the London Review of Books in December 2018, Lanchester set about asking himself why Christie was the only author he could read while he was engaged in his own writing.

The plain, unvarnished quality of her writing, her focus on the mechanics of the plot over character development, made her novels more timeless than those of her contemporaries.

Even as he admitted that Christie’s prose was “flat and functional,” and her characters “on a spectrum between types, stereotypes and caricatures,” Lanchester hatched a theory to explain the longevity of Christie’s work: the plain, unvarnished quality of her writing, her focus on the mechanics of plot over character development, made her novels more timeless that those of her contemporaries, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. Although arguably better, more stylish writers, their effort to be au courant and somewhat progressive has left their books feeling anachronistic. There is much more of this, including an audacious argument that Christie belongs to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as a great formalist. As he points out, “Christie produced a range of formal experiments so extensive that it’s quite difficult to think of an idea she didn’t try, short of setting a Poirot novel in a school for wizards.” 

Read Here.

Yoko Ono, Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4

We’re unabashed fans of BBC Radio, and this radio show, on the air since 1942, may represent the world’s greatest single catalog of 20th century icons discussing life, love, and music. The format is simple: each week a celebrated guest is “cast away to a desert island” and must choose eight musical tracks that define their life (they also get to take a luxury and a beloved book!). In it’s near 80-year history the show has had only five different hosts, including (from 2006 to 2018) the sparkling Kirsty Young who could give Terry Gross a run for her money for the sparkling charm she deploys in steering her guests to their most tender and heartfelt confessions. This episode with Yoko Ono is a case in point. The artist talks warmly and generously about her life with John Lennon, and her account of his murder will leave you in tears. Her musical choices, from Bob Marley to Edith Piaf, are pretty wonderful, too.

Listen Here.

Nigella Lawson’s Zucchini and Chickpea Filo Pie

Lockdown has turned us into a nation of bakers, but many home bakers in the U.K., can date their enthusiasm for pastry and dough to Nigella Lawson’s 2001 masterpiece, The Domestic Goddess, a bestseller that has become a classic. Lawson, who has her own shelf of favorite books at One Grand, revels in rich and unctuous cakes and pies, but also finds room for a savory pie or two. This one is simple and quick with a short ingredient list, although separating the filo sheets can be fiddly. And if you grow your own zucchini, it’s an excellent way to use them up come June.

Cook Here.

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Book Club: The 1970s Book Club is Here

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Vote for ten books you want to read (or reread) from the year in which the Concord made it’s maiden flight,  the Beatles disbanded, and Apollo 13 aborted its mission to the moon.

1970-book-club

 

Last year we launched our first book club, reading 10 books first published in 1969. This year we’re moving on by announcing the 1970 Book Club. Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon was in power, the Beatles were over, and the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer who helped expose the Gulag labor camps. One year after Neil Armstrong’s “small step for mankind,” it was “Houston, we have a problem.” What, if anything, do the books of that year reveal about the concerns of the time, and how do they speak to us today? The year was ablaze with brilliant, groundbreaking works by Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, and Saul Bellow, as well as a Nordic Noir classic by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. What’s more, all of these titles have all had five decades to demonstrate their longevity and worth. Which ten of 20 selected titles do you want to read in 2020.

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Shop: Exclusive Holiday Gift: The Mitford Collection

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Mitford-CollectionOne Grand has partnered with 2 Queens to create a unique gift for the tea-drinking, book-loving person in your life: This collection of three Nancy Mitford titles (chosen by Tilda Swinton, Rufus Wainwright, and Marianne Faithfull), is accompanied by 4-oz of specially-blended loose-leaf English Breakfast tea crafted by Narrowsburg’s very own 2 Queens, plus an infuser, all packaged in a gorgeous presentation box. Each book is a numbered edition of 50, and is accompanied with a custom-designed bookmark to remind you who chose it and why. Order by Monday December 16 and your order will be bumped to PRIORITY shipping on us.

Purchase here while stocks last.

 

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Reviews: Two Novels Offer Cautionary Tales of Heedless Hedonism

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The Worst Kind of Want by Liska Jacobs

The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara

For anyone who has ever experienced burnout, there’s the moment when the desire to flee daily responsibilities becomes almost overwhelming. And despite the temporary reprieve sought in vacations or small acts of self-care, it’s only natural to still harbor long-term fantasies of escape. 

This month we’re indulging our fantasies of freedom with two stories of literary escape before the inevitable return to real life: The Worst Kind of Want by California author, Liska Jacobs and The Bishop’s Bedroom, a reissue of a 1976 novel by Piero Chiara (it was made into a 1977 movie by the Italian comic master Dino Risi). Similarly set in picturesque Italy, both feature main characters worn-down by a sense of responsibility — One a man returning from WWII, the other a successful movie producer charged with caring for her recently motherless niece. While set in vastly different eras, both main characters pursue frivolous romances as a means of escape from more adult responsibilities.

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Reviews: What We’re Reading in September

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What We Are Reading in September

Two books dealing with conflict shed light on these divisive times.

We’re arguably living in one of the most divisive times in recent history, and violent nationalist language has steadily been creeping out from the dark corners of the internet, confronting us with violent deaths, hate crimes, and college students giving the Nazi salute. And while man-made borders have exacerbated violent rhetoric, they certainly don’t confine it. Read More What We’re Reading in September

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Feature: Children’s Author of the Month: Wanda Gag

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Wanda Gag

 

About the time that A.A.Milne began writing his tales of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, and 12 years before the arrival of Curious George, the Minnesotan artists Wanda Gag, the daughter of impoverished immigrants from Bohemia, was quietly, almost inadvertently, launching a revolution in book publishing. Her first title, Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture book still in print, was the touch paper for a new era in which children’s book were conceived, written, and illustrated by a single artist. Not many books, for children or otherwise, become a classic overnight, but Gag’s tale of “thousands and millions and billions and trillions of cats,” was a hit from the moment it came off the presses. Read More Children’s Author of the Month: Wanda Gag

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Feature: Remembering Toni Morrison

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“I really only do one thing,’ the writer Toni Morrison, who has died at the age of 88, told Hilton Als in 2003, when she was profiled for The New Yorker. “I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.” Read More Remembering Toni Morrison

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Reviews: What We’re Reading in April

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Three Very Different Books Connected By a Quest for Identity

The Gooze Fritz, by Sergei Lebedev (New Vessel Press)

the-goose-fritzThere’s a natural inclination to fill in the missing pieces of our personal narratives. It partially stems from the belief that understanding where you come from, can ultimately shape where you’re going. Such stories allow us to elevate our unknown ancestors to mythical proportions — a missing father can become a war hero, or a grandfather a healing wizard — offering the descendent a chance to create order from chaos and reframe their roots.

Kirill, the main character in The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, doesn’t initially set out to elevate his ancestors, but he does attempt to control his destiny by creating a linear arc of the past. As a child, Kirill was the sole companion of his grandmother Lina, as she took secretive trips to the German cemetery in Moscow. Unquestioning, he accompanies her for years before understanding the family’s German origins. It’s a secret that seems so far removed from the American psyche — a nation of immigrants — yet so apt in a time of increased nationalism.

Read More What We’re Reading in April

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